‘As bad as it gets’ drought returns to NM

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Fifteen miles of the Rio Grande are dry in the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge area south of Socorro, but that’s no accident of nature.

The drying out of the river, which started April 1, is an intentional process aimed at preserving water resources, according to David Gensler, water operations manager for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District.

The Conservancy District delivers irrigation water for 70,000 acres of farmland in the Middle Rio Grande Valley.

“We don’t have enough water to keep everything wet,” Gensler said. “We began drying the river while we had some water (in storage) to work with, drying it slowly and controlled so fish can migrate upstream.” He said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been rescuing endangered silvery minnows trapped in pools during the drying-out operation.

“We are running our system very lean, trying to keep things very tight, because we have the potential of some very bad consequences if we don’t manage our supply very carefully,” he said.

Gensler has good reason to be cautious. Exceptional drought, which translates into “as bad as it gets,” has invaded portions of New Mexico for the first time since May 2014.

The most recent map, released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s drought monitor, shows 9 percent of New Mexico – in the northeast and northwest parts of the state – in exceptional drought. About 37 percent of the state is in extreme drought, the second-most serious category, and almost 99 percent is experiencing some level of drought.

There has been little or no snowpack in the mountains, and, as a result, next-to-no runoff.

But there will be water for farmers this year, Gensler said, because of good storage in El Vado and Heron reservoirs in Rio Arriba County. He said there are about 84,000 acre feet in El Vado and 40,000 acre feet in Heron. An acre foot is the amount of water required to cover an acre to a depth of one foot.

“There have been some years we have gone into the season with only a few thousand (acre feet) in storage,” he said.

And although Gensler notes that this has been an abysmally bad year for precipitation, he said some rain north of Chama earlier this month put 10,000 acre feet of water into El Vado.

That rain was indeed a rare occurrence in New Mexico the past six months. What water there is in New Mexico reservoirs is due, in large part, to really good rains in late September and early October. But since then, not much.

“It was about Oct. 10 when it was like (an off) switch was thrown,” said Royce Fontenot, senior hydrologist in the Albuquerque office of the National Weather Service.

At the start of October, there was no drought in New Mexico. Now, almost all of the state has some kind.

“On Oct. 24, there was a smidgen of moderate drought,” Fontenot said. “It has just ramped up since then. People say, ‘Well, yeah, but New Mexico is the desert.’ But you still have moisture in the desert. We are entering a time when it should be getting wetter and it’s just not happening.”

Exceptional drought conditions started creeping into the northern part of the state earlier this month. Before then, Fontenot said, May 27, 2014, was the last time that degree of drought had been recorded in New Mexico. If history is any indicator, it could get much worse than the 9 percent it is now. Fontenot said that in a drought that stretched from May 2011 to May 2012, as much as 49 percent of the state was in exceptional drought and that in 2013, exceptional drought blanketed up to 45 percent of New Mexico.

But relief may come this summer in the form of a good monsoon.

Fontenot said the Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center is calling for normal to above normal precipitation for the state in June, July and August.

“The hints are certainly there,” Fontenot said. “There is hope for a monsoon, and we could certainly use that.”

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